"Save Darfur" Must Save Itself

With time running out to stop Sudan's genocide, the last thing Darfur needs is for its Western allies to turn on each other.

There are many myths afoot about the movement to save Darfur. Chief among them in recent weeks is the rumor of its death. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a longtime ally, has declared the movement to be fragmented by internal disagreement and dismissed by those in power. Alex de Waal, a leading self-critical voice among Sudan watchers, laments that it is archaic and unwilling to adapt its ways. Columbia University scholar Mahmood Mamdani, in a recent book on the subject, all but declared the Darfur movement a waste of time.

Mamdani's distorted broadside notwithstanding, there are probably grains of truth to any thoughtful critique of the Darfur movement. It is far from perfect, and an accurate accounting of its strengths and weaknesses is long overdue. But such calls to declare defunct efforts to save the war-torn Sudanese region miss the point. Millions of activists around the world remain committed to the cause of peace in Sudan. It's just that no one is telling them that now is the moment they are needed most.

There has never been a more critical time in Sudan's history than the present. This summer, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is celebrating two decades of dictatorship, having come to power in a coup in 1989. During Bashir's tenure, Africa's largest country has steadily declined into a model failed state. Home to the 21st century's first genocide, Sudan now boasts more displaced persons than any country on Earth.

According to the current issue of Foreign Policy, it is among the three countries in the world most at risk of total collapse. Bashir himself is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, torture, rape, and attacks against civilian populations. Even so, he looks set to win a national election next year. The following year, 2011, will bring a national referendum on the secession of Southern Sudan, which most experts expect to pass. This will split the country in two and render obsolete existing peace agreements, including the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that was intended to end the country's 12-year civil war and set out the parameters for peace.

All of this means the international community now faces an 18-month window in which to fix the whole mess. And originally, nobody seemed better equipped to do so than Barack Obama. As a U.S. senator and presidential candidate, Obama seemed particularly attuned to Sudan's urgent and tragic trajectory, calling it "a stain on our souls." Joining him were Senate colleagues Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. During the campaign, Clinton was fond of demanding a "more robust response." Biden was the most out front, at one point proclaiming he did not "have the stomach for genocide when it comes to Darfur." But since taking office, the Obama administration has been slow to translate rhetoric into action.

In fact, there now appears to be internal discord within the administration over how to best bring about cooperation from Khartoum, the hub from which Sudan's violence emanates. It seems that the president's special envoy to Sudan, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, is taking a conciliatory line toward Bashir, going as far as to declare last month that what we now see in Sudan is the "remnants of genocide." Just days earlier, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had said the opposite, accusing the Sudanese leadership of ongoing genocide in Darfur and citing the "urgency and complexity of the overall situation."

This kind of muddled interplay might normally be forgiven early in a new administration. In the case of Sudan, however, it plays directly into Bashir's hands. Since his March indictment by the ICC, Bashir has expertly capitalized on the lack of a focused, comprehensive effort by the international community to advance his strategy of delay, deny, divide, and detract.

Enough is enough. If there is agreement on anything within the Darfur movement, it is that Obama must start living up to his promises of leading a bolder path forward in Sudan. Both Bashir's recent expulsion of humanitarian aid groups upon which millions depend for basic survival and the actions of his government to prevent the Mandate Darfur conference scheduled for last month, which was to bring together Sudanese civil society groups as part of the peace process, are unacceptable behaviors by any standard. Yet the United States and other countries remained nearly silent.

It's time to start speaking up. The White House must begin shaping a new international road map that provides a framework for sustainable peace in Sudan. The road map should be grounded in existing commitments, including the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the various existing Darfur commitments. It must also set measurable milestones and hold accountable Khartoum for its decisions and actions. The way forward must include Sudan's key geopolitical partners, principally China and Russia. Both can offer enticing carrots to Khartoum and apply immediate pressure in the face of noncooperation. Peace and stability in Sudan is in these states' interests, either for economic or political reasons. There is room for cooperation -- if the U.S. government signals that this discussion is a priority.

Exercising the political will necessary to craft a road map for lasting peace in Sudan will not come easily, nor will success. And that is precisely why the Darfur movement is needed now more than ever. Will it help apply immediate and meaningful pressure to those in power, at home and abroad, and ensure meaningful action to bring peace to the people of Sudan at this critical juncture? Ultimately, history may judge the Darfur movement not on the last five years, but on the next 18 months. With deadlines in Sudan looming -- and both the north and south rearming themselves for civil war -- it seems likely that the epitaph of the Darfur movement is far from written.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


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